Thursday, 22 March 2018

Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology is Indistinguishable from Magic

The interaction between magic and technology has interested me for a long time. But there are fine distinctions between different approaches to that interaction.

What I'm not particularly interested in are fictional universes in which magic takes on the functions of technology, as though "magic" is just another tool, like steam power or the dynamo, available for instrumental ends. Harry Potter is a bit like this: magic is almost just another form of energy transfer which can be used to, say, imbue a mop to make it clean the kitchen for you or transform a chair into a butler who now sets the table for dinner or whatever. Boring.

I'm also not very interested in fictional universes where magic can be explained through physics just like technology can. The best example of bad practice in this respect is, without question, midichlorians. How to make something mystical and awe-inspiring seem bland and uninteresting in 5 seconds: provide a pseudo-scientific explanation for it.

No. What I mean by the interaction of magic and technology is something akin to what I described in my last post: the deployment of technology to achieve a magical end, or vice versa. Recording a curse on a cassette tape and then putting the tape near the victim is a great example. Some others: translating spells into binary code to allow them to be read and processed by computer. Making voodoo dolls for technological objects (create a model of somebody's car and then puncture its wheels to stop the actual real-life vehicle from moving). Charm Person delivered via a snapchat message. Creating a doppelganger of somebody by downloading all the data Facebook holds on them.

Have there been any RPG settings which have mixed magic and technology in this way? The only examples I can think of that come even close are the different character classes in Unknown Armies (Pornomancers and Videomancers and all that), and maybe some of the ideas implicit in Mage: The Ascension?

29 comments:

  1. Every George Lucasism in Star Wars made it worse. His only genius was retaining the merchandising rights to a movie other people made for him.

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    1. Star Wars wouldn't exist without George Lucas. It's sad to see people hate on him so much, even if his magnum opus (The Phantom Menace) deserves some shame. These things are collaborative efforts, but I don't think it would have happened without him.

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    2. In all honesty, since seeing "The Force Awakens" I've started seeing George Lucas in a much more positive light - because at least he had a vision for doing something different. But maybe I should steer away from controversy for a little while...

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    3. If you steer away from controversy, a new one will simply run into you.

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  2. The stuff about curses and audio tape brings The Ring to mind ("Frolic in brine/goblins be thine."), of course. But wouldn't that be a great set-up for a game session?

    "You're all round at PC X's flat, watching a film, when the screen goes fuzzy ... NOW YOU'RE CURSED! What do you do?"

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    1. Definitely. In that vein I always wanted to run a campaign with the basic idea being: "You're all together at the pub and then suddenly....YOU'RE IN THE ABYSS!!"

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  3. A lot of Tim Powers's (or, at any rate, those of his books set in the modern day/late 20th Century) feel a bit like this, though I can't bring any good examples to mind.

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  4. I always thought the magic/science dichotomy was something of a modern distinction to make. Science is explainable, magic is not, so they must be fundamentally different things.

    But looking at historical views of magic, it seems that to their eyes, the world was so strange and unexplainable anyway, that magic was just as natural as anything else. Words like 'arcane' and 'mystic' present it as secret knowledge. Blacksmiths were thought to be semi-magical because their trade required special knowledge passed down from master to apprentice, outside the reach of other people. And perhaps the formula for quality steel was only different to a magic spell by degrees.

    Maybe you could find something of the same mystique in hacking today. Or phreaking - the idea of whistling or using a plastic toy whistle to hack a public telephone seems fit what you're going for. Maybe calling a phantom number and holding the eight key in a fraction of a second longer than usual allows you hear the voices of people who should be dead. Or perhaps if you put a pirate copy of the 1999 game 'Antz' for gameboy colour into an original gameboy the distorted sound it makes kills dogs and people with dyslexia. Numbers stations are fun too.

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    1. There are so many cool ideas you can come up with, without really even having to think very hard. (Actually, now that I think of it, the Unknown Armies book had loads of little urban legend ideas like those and the ones in my post.)

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  5. When the mercury thermometer was invented, a lot of people scoffed that you could reduce temperature to a single number, because of all the different words we had to describe how the weather feels to us.

    I think that’s somehow tangentially related but I can’t think of how.

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    1. There is an element of truth in that, though!

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  6. There was a whole pseudo-genre of early and mid-century "slick magazine" fantasy stories about enchanted or cursed machinery. Locomotives, automobiles, phonographs, radios, etc. Watches and clocks which messed with time, radios which revealed what people really think about you, and so forth.

    There's also L. Frank Baum, whose Oz books had an interesting mix of really weird magic and a kind of "steampunk magic" based on complicated supernatural devices. In his last novel, Glinda of Oz, he went full-bore Jules Verne with an underwater city and submarines, all magical in nature.

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    1. Yeah, and I imagine lots of "Twilight Zone" episodes as well.

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  7. I was going to say Unknown Armies but....ya beat me to it! I think that's the only real example I'm aware of, but I don't know if Shadowrun does anything like that, or is more mundane in its treatment of magic.

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    1. I think Shadowrun, from what I remember, insists on a dichotomy between magic and technology...

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  8. I've always liked the idea that they are somewhat incompatible except in extreme or unique circumstances. No technological device can 'detect magic'. Magic goes right through an Electromagnetic Deflector Shield. That sort of thing.

    This can be seen on occasion in the Superhero genre. Superman's invulnerability doesn't protect him from magic. Even the Greatest American Hero's super suit could be damaged by a supernatural entity. A friend of mine used this idea to good measure in an old Champions campaign.

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  9. I can't think of any any other settings or works that did what you described, with the exception of my own work. And not to toot my own horn, but that is exactly I am currently trying to do in my modern-day setting, Those who Know.

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  10. the Laundry file rpg *might* be what you are looking for? I've never played it but the books have some elements of what you describe, although I'm not sure if it's just right. The Kraken by Mielville is another source, but I don't think it's ever been turned into an RPG...

    Ancalagon

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    1. Haven't read that one. I went off Mieville a bit because all his characters and dialogue are so similar.

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  11. Someone mentioned Tim Powers earlier. A couple examples that might fit what you're after...

    - In Last Call, which is based a lot around tarot, they're being magically tracked, so they glue a deck of cards to the hubcaps and wheel well of their car, so the constant recombination of cards creates tarot readings for phantom people, throwing off pursuit.

    - People throw firecrackers at their footprints to mystically destroy them so ghosts don't see where they walk.

    - Edison makes a necrophone to speak with the dead.

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    1. [The Someone in question]

      All good stuff, but none of it felt as pointed as Facebook dopplegangers to me.

      The deer whistles on the car in Last Call did the same sort of thing, though the blend of old and new is not complete in that book; IE, copper pennies taped to silver ones used for divination. The tape might be new, but not a lot else is.

      Perhaps the use of smartphones and a film reel in Medusa's Web might be a better match.

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    2. Rather belatedly, a few more examples, from Tim Powers's Earthquake Weather. All page references taken from the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks Edition, 2015.

      p. 109 Pennies minted in the year of a dead man's birth shaken in a jar.

      'The pennies she's shaking are a part of now with a link to Crane's birth year, and the pictures they'll tune the TV to will be representative bits of now in the same field of reference - just like a piece of a hologram contains the whole picture, or a drop of your blood contains the whole physical portrait of you.'

      pp. 162-163 'Mavranos had specially 'stealth-equipped' the truck for the trip, with sea-water in the windshield-washer reservoir and clumps of anonymous hair from a barbershop floor taped onto the radio antenna supplementing the tangle of ultrasonic deer-repelling whistles pined in conflicting patterns on the roof and hood'

      p. 145 'He stared at the two-figure mannikin that was canted against the couch. With shirts, jackets, trousers, and shoes hung on the aluminum poles, and the pair of mannikin shop-store heads stuck on the swivelling neck posts, the thing did look like two blandly smiling men, with their arms around the shoulders of an invisible third man in the middle; and when he strapped the framework onto his shoulders, Armentrout would become the third man, the man in the middle. A lever in the chest of the left-hand dummy permitted him to work the mechanical outside arms, and one in the right-hand dummy let him swivel the heads this way and that. And he had cored out holes in the styrofoam heads, under the Dynel wigs, and stuffed into the holes dozens of paper towels dotted with patients' blood samples. The thing weighed about twenty pounds, and was awkward to wear, and in public it drew FAR [Italics in original] too much derisive attention, but on several occasions it had proven to be an effective multi-level psychic scrambler, a terrifically refractive and deflecting mask.'

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  12. Concerning RPGs I have no idea, but this put in my mind immediately such Cronenburg films as Videodrome, Scanners, Naked Lunch, and the Fly; and Lynch's Dune and Eraserhead.

    The former more than the latter. Videodrome involves the propagation of an idea through the medium of television and VHS ... Naked Lunch has typewriters that are/become sex-beetles ... The Fly of course involves the magical combination of a man and a fly via a teleportation machine mixing the two back together incorrectly ...

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    1. Yeah, Videodrome. (Also The Ring I guess.)

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  13. I wrote a pdf for superscience in Mutant Future, Quantum Flux: Unique Superscience Artifacts. Instead of just replicating spells with individual items, all of my creations are more like Swiss army knives mixed with smart phone (i.e. multifunctional). And as they are for Mutant Future, all of them have been through hell several times and that affects their functions.

    The free preview doesn't work for it on OBS, but the one for Wisdom From the Wastelands 39 does and you can read the description for one to see how I did all of them.

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  14. I've tried this kind of thing (magic as "highfalutin' science") multiple times: see Land of Ice as an example. However, my latest campaign setting (that I've been working off-and-on for the last few years while on gaming hiatus) does the science thing strictly for clerical magic. Heavily Barsoom-Inspired.

    I believe this is also Numera's shtick.

    I'm sure I've seen it in other places, but the specific games/settings are escaping me at the moment...

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    1. *ahem* That should say say "Numenera." Sorry.

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